A Weed By Any Other Name

Only the most special plants inspire a million names. Here's how to identify pot...I mean weed...I mean cannabis.

Very few plants are known by so many names. Jazz Cabbage. Pot. Weed. Hemp. Marijuana. CBD. They’re all names for the same plant: Cannabis Sativa. 

Hemp and hemp-derived CBD are referring to a specific subtype of Cannabis Sativa. These are varieties with less than .3% THC by volume. Taxomologist distinguish this subtype with the letter “L,” Cannabis sativa L. The “L.” is rumored to be a tribute to the 18th-century French botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He was a big cannabis dude back in the day. 

Botanists are actually in a nerdy debate about the proper taxonomy. Everyone agrees the family is Cannabinaceae. It’s a tiny plant family basically made of three genera Celtis, Humulus – beer hops – and Cannabis. And all the botanists agree Cannabis is the genus. 

Where the nerds like to argue is about the species. The prevailing theory – and the one I’m on board with – is that there is one genetic species: sativa. Under the sativa species, you have hundreds of different cultivars. These different cultivars are categorized into groups based on physical and psychoactive characteristics.

Drug dealers in college loved to sell weed as either a sativa, indica or hybrid. Sativa was sold as a more stimulating and cerebral high. Indica – remembered as “in-da-couch” – was sold as more of a sedative and body high. Hybrids were versions of bud that would turn up or turn down the style of high depending on the dominance of sativa or indica. 

It all sounded very scientific, but turns out, it was mostly just marketing. 

Today, science suggests the plants are all genetically sativa. Within the species, you have different categories. 

Narrow Leaf (NL) would be the tall plants with – you guessed it – long narrow leaves. These are the cultivars drug dealers once marketed as “sativa.” The “indica” buds are categorized as Broad Leaf (BL). BL cultivars are shorter and bushier. They are native to higher altitudes of Afghanistan. Since they used to grow on mountain tops that are physically closer to the sun, they didn’t evolve to grow as tall as the NL cultivars – which are native to the subtropical climates of southeast Asia. When cannabis prohibition struck, BL cultivars were easier to grow inside under lights. These little bushes could produce a similar yield with much less space. Plant breeders gravitated to BL types and started cross breeding with NL types for different psychoactive results. 

There are also subtypes within the Narrow Leaf and Broad Leaf. Drug versions of both types contain higher levels of THC. The shorthand for those is NLD and BLD. Finally, Hemp versions of both categories exist too (NLH, BLH). Hemp versions offer other cannabinoids and fiber. 

If there is no genetic difference between indicas and sativas, why are cannabis cultivars still marketed as indica, sativa or hyrbid?

Its less about the taxonomy – which is a relic of the days of prohibition – and more about the user experience. These three categories provide insights into the effects the cultivar will produce.

The emerging theory is that terpenes play a large influence in how our high feels. Indicas are more sedative because these plants contain higher levels of sedative terpenes like myrcene, linalool and humulene. Sativas offer a more energic and social high because they contain higher levels of stimulating terpenes like limonene and alpha pinene. Hybrids have a more balanced blend of a range of terpenes.

Enough of the nerdy shit. The point is: you know we’re talking about a special plant when it’s spent a lifetime earning hundreds of names and triggering heated debates. 

Also published on Medium.

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